2. Of Personal Merit
From Characters by Jean De La Bruyère (1688)

1. What man, however rare his talents, however excellent his qualities, cannot but be convinced of his uselessness, on considering that in the world he must leave at death his loss will pass unnoticed, and a host of others will be ready to take his place?

2. Many men have only their name to commend them. When you see them close, they are of no account; from a distance, they take you in.

3. Although I am quite sure that those men who are chosen for various functions, each according to his aptitudes and his profession, perform them well, I would hazard a guess that there are many others, known or unknown, who have not been appointed but who would perform these functions even better; and I am led to this opinion by the astonishing success of certain people who have gained their position by chance alone, and of whom previously nothing very much had been expected.

How many admirable men with excellent natural gifts have died without ever having been talked about! how many are still alive who are not and who never will be talked about!

4. How horribly hard it is for a man who has no backers and no coterie, who belongs to no association but is all alone, with nothing to recommend him but his remarkable qualities, to fight his way out of obscurity and attain the level of a coxcomb who happens to be in fashion!

5. Scarcely anyone of his own accord discerns another's merits. Men are too much occupied with themselves to have leisure to study or appreciate others; hence it comes that a man whose merits are great but whose modesty is even greater may remain for a long time unknown.

6. Many men lack natural gifts and great talents, and others merely lack opportunities: some may be praised for what they have achieved and some for what they might have achieved.

7. It is less uncommon to meet with wit than with men who know how to use their wit, or who make the most of others' wit and turn it to good account.

8. There are more tools than there are workmen, and more bad workmen than good; what would you think of one who tried to saw with a plane, and who used his saw to plane with?

9. There is no more arduous undertaking in the world than to make a great name for oneself: by the end of one's life one has barely begun one's task.

10. What's to be done with Egesippus, who is asking for a post? Should he be employed in the Exchequer or in the Army? It makes no difference, and only the public interest can decide; for he is just as capable of dealing with money or keeping accounts as of bearing arms. 'He can do anything,' his friends say, which always means that he has no more aptitude for one thing than for another, in other words that he can do nothing. Thus the majority of men, concerned with themselves alone in their youth, corrupted by idleness or by pleasure, mistakenly believe at a later age that they merely have to be useless or indigent for the State to be obliged to employ or succour them; and they seldom learn that all-important lesson, which is that men should work and study during the early years of their lives, so that the State itself may later need their industry and wisdom, that they may form an essential part of its whole edifice, and that it may seek in its own interests to make or to improve their fortune.

We should strive to make ourselves really worthy of some function; the rest does not concern us, it's up to other people.

11. One should either achieve distinction through things which depend not on others but on oneself alone, or else give up all claims to distinction: this is an invaluable maxim, of endless profit in practice, useful to the weak, the virtuous, the intelligent, whom it makes masters of their fortune or of their peace of mind: pernicious to great nobles, since it would diminish the number of their courtiers, or rather of their slaves; would bring down their pride while it impaired their authority, leaving them with practically nothing but their fancy dishes and their carriage and horses; would deprive them of the pleasure they get from being entreated, importuned, solicited, from keeping people waiting or denying them, from promising and then not giving; would thwart their taste for encouraging fools and mortifying merit, when they happen to recognize it; would banish from courts all cliques and cabals, all unjust dealings, all servility, flattery and deceitfulness; would make the storm and stress of a court full of cross-currents and intrigues seem like a comic or even a tragic play, of which wise men would merely be spectators; would restore dignity to the various conditions of men and serenity to their faces; would extend their freedom; would revive in them, with their natural talents, a habit of industry and occupation; would turn them from base courtiers, restless and useless and frequently a burden on the State, into prudent stewards, or excellent householders, or upright judges, or good officers, or great captains, or orators, or philosophers; and would bring them no other disadvantage than, perhaps, that of bequeathing good examples rather than great riches to their heirs.

12. In France, it takes much firmness of spirit and a great breadth of understanding to do without offices and positions, and be willing to stay at home and do nothing. Scarcely anyone has enough native worth to play such a part with dignity, or enough resources of mind to fill in the vacant time, without what is commonly called business. Yet all that's needed is for the wise man's idleness to have a better name, and for reflection, conversation, reading and a quiet life to be known as work.

13. A man of worth, who has an important post, never gives offence through vanity; he is less dazzled by the position he holds than humiliated by not holding a higher one, for which he considers himself fit; more given to dissatisfaction than to pride or contempt for others, he is burdensome only to himself.

14. It is hard for a man of worth to pay court assiduously, but for a very different reason than might be imagined; such worth implies great modesty, which prevents him from supposing that he can give the slightest pleasure to princes by appearing in their presence, standing where he may be seen and showing them his face: he is more likely to believe himself importunate, and he needs all the arguments drawn from custom and from his duty to consent to show himself. On the contrary, the man who has a good opinion of himself, and who is what is commonly called vainglorious, likes being seen, and he pays his court the more confidently because he is incapable of imagining that the great men who see him have a different opinion of his person than he has himself.

15. An honourable man finds his own reward for his devotion to duty in the pleasure he takes in doing it, and cares little for the praises, esteem and gratitude which he does not always receive.

16. If I might venture to make a comparison between two quite disparate conditions of men, I would say that a brave man thinks of performing his duties as a tiler thinks of laying tiles: neither the one nor the other seeks to risk his life, nor is deterred by danger; death, for them, is a professional hazard, but never an obstacle. The former is no prouder of having appeared in the trenches, stormed an outwork or forced an entrenchment, than the latter of having climbed on to high roofs or to the top of a steeple. Each of them is concerned only with doing his work well, while the braggart's object is to be praised for the work he has done.

17. Modesty is to merit as shadows are to the figure in a painting: it strengthens it and sets it off.

Outward simplicity befits ordinary men, like a garment made to measure for them; but it serves as an adornment to those who have filled their lives with great deeds: they might be compared to some beauty carelessly dressed and thereby all the more attractive.

Certain men, being pleased with themselves for some deed or some piece of work successfully accomplished, and having heard say that modesty becomes great men, dare to be modest, feigning simplicity and naturalness: like men of moderate height who bend down on entering doors for fear of hitting their heads.

18. Your son has a stammer: don't make a public speaker of him. Your daughter is sociable by nature: don't shut her up among the vestal virgins. (1) Xanthus, your freeman, is weak and timid: don't delay, withdraw him from the army. 'I want to promote his career,' you say. Lavish wealth upon him, overwhelm him with lands, titles and possessions; take advantage of our time; we are living in an age when these will bring him more honour than virtue could. 'I cannot afford it,' you add. Are you speaking seriously, Crassus? Do you realize that you'd merely be taking a drop of water from the Tiber to enrich Xanthus, whom you love, and to prevent the shameful consequences of a situation for which he is ill fitted?

19. We should consider, in our friends, only the virtue which endears them to us, without regard to their good or ill fortune; and if we feel capable of following them in their disgrace, we must boldly and confidently maintain relations with them at the height of their prosperity.

20. If it is usual to be strongly attracted by things that are rare, why has virtue so little attraction for us?

21. A well-born man is fortunate, but so is the man about whom people no longer ask, is he well-born?

22. From time to time there appear on the face of the earth men of rare and consummate excellence, who dazzle us by their virtue, and whose outstanding qualities shed a stupendous light. Like those extraordinary stars of whose origins we are ignorant, and of whose fate, once they have vanished, we know even less, such men have neither forebears nor descendants: they are the whole of their race.

23. A right judgement shows us our duty and our obligation to fulfil it, dangerously, if danger there be: it inspires courage, or makes up for the lack of it.

24. A man who excels in his art and has brought it to its highest pitch of perfection rises, as it were, above that art and becomes equal to all that is noblest and most lofty. V— is a painter, C— a musician, and the author of Pyrame is a poet; but Mignard is Mignard, Lulli is Lulli, and Corneille is Corneille.

25. A man who is free and unmarried, if he has some intelligence, can rise above his fortune, mingle in society and meet the best people on an equal footing. This is harder for a married man: marriage, it seems, confines every man to his proper rank.

26. Next to personal merit, it must be admitted, high honours and great titles are what confer most distinction and lustre on men; and he who cannot be Erasmus had better strive to become a bishop. Some men, to augment their renown, accumulate peerages, decorations, primacies, the purple, and feel the need of a tiara; but does Trophime need to be a cardinal?

27. The gold glitters, you tell me, on Philemon's clothes. — It glitters just as brightly at the goldsmith's. — They are made of the finest cloths. — Are these less fine when spread out, uncut, in the shop? — But the embroidery and the ornaments add splendour to them. — Then I must praise the workman's skill. — If you ask him the time, he pulls out a watch which is a masterpiece; the handle of his sword is an onyx; he wears on his finger a great diamond which he flashes before your eyes, and which is flawless; he lacks none of those curious trifles that people wear more for vanity's sake than for use, and he no more denies himself any sort of adornment than a young man who has married a rich old woman. — At last you have aroused my curiosity; I must at any rate behold such precious things: let me see those garments and jewels of Philemon's; I can do without his person. You are mistaken, Philemon, if you think that your glittering coach, the crowd of idle rascals that follow you and the six horses that draw you make people think the better of you: they disregard all this pomp which is extraneous to you, and see through to your foolish self. And yet we must sometimes forgive the man who, having a great retinue, fine clothes and a splendid equipage, thinks himself on that account more nobly born and more intelligent: the eyes and expressions of his companions tell him as much.

28. A man who, at court or in town, wears a long coat of silk or fine Holland cloth, a broad sash tied high on his chest, shoes and cap of Morocco leather, a well-made well-starched band and has neatly dressed hair and a florid complexion, and who, into the bargain, remembers a few metaphysical distinctions, can explain what the Light of Glory is and knows exactly how one may see God, such a man is called a Doctor of Theology. A humble person, buried in his study, who has spent his life meditating, seeking, consulting, comparing, reading or writing, is merely doctus, a learned man.

29. Here, the soldier is brave and the man of law is learned; we go no further. Among the Romans, the man of law was brave and the soldier learned: a Roman was at the same time a soldier and a man of law.

30. The hero, it seems, belongs to one profession only, that of arms, while the great man may be found in any profession, the law or the army, the Cabinet or the Court; but a good man outweighs both of these put together.

31. In war, the distinction between a hero and a great man is a delicate one: each of these needs all the soldierly virtues. It would seem, however, that the former is young, enterprising, of great valour, resolute in danger, intrepid; while the other excels by good judgement, immense foresight, great capabilities and long experience. Perhaps Alexander was merely a hero, while Caesar was a great man.

32. Emilius was by nature what the greatest men only become by dint of study, meditation and practice. In his early years he merely had to realize his native talents and obey his instincts. With him, action and achievement preceded knowledge, or rather he knew things without ever having learnt them. Victories were, so to speak, the sports of his childhood. A whole life blessed by extreme good fortune combined with long experience would gain lustre from the actions which he performed as a mere youth. He embraced every subsequent opportunity for victory; where none existed, his courage and his lucky star created them; we admire him both for the things he did and for those which he could have done. He was considered as a man incapable of yielding to the enemy, of giving way before numbers or before obstacles; as a spirit of the highest order, resourceful and enlightened, who saw when others could no longer see; as the man who, at the head of his legions, was for them a presage of victory, and who was in himself worth several legions; who was great in prosperity, and even greater when fortune was adverse (the raising of a siege, a retreat, did more to enhance his reputation than all his triumphs: battles won and cities captured were secondary claims to fame); who was as modest as he was glorious and would admit: 'I took flight', as readily as he said: 'We defeated them'; a man devoted to the State, to his family, to the head of his family; one sincere towards God and towards men, who appreciated merit as much as if it had not been so familiar to him, so particularly his own; a man who was true, simple and magnanimous, and lacked only the slighter virtues.

33. The sons of the gods seem exempt from the laws of nature, they form as it were the exception to these. They have almost nothing to gain from time and the lapse of years. Merit in their case precedes maturity. Knowledge is theirs at birth, and they are complete men at an age when most men have barely emerged from childhood.

34. Short-sighted men, I mean those whose narrow minds are confined to their own petty sphere, cannot understand that universality of talents sometimes to be found in a single individual: charm, they think, is incompatible with solid worth; where they see physical grace, agility, suppleness and skill, they cannot admit the existence of spiritual gifts, profundity, thoughtfulness and wisdom: they will never tell you that Socrates danced.

35. No man is so perfect, so necessary to his friends, as to give them no cause to miss him less.

36. An intelligent man, who is simple and straightforward by nature, may fall into some trap; he never supposes that anyone would lay one for him, or choose to make a fool of him; this trustfulness makes him less cautious, and practical jokers can thus take him unawares. Those who return to the attack can only be the losers: he won't be caught out twice.

I shall take care to offend nobody, if I am fair-minded; but above all, if I have the slightest regard for my own interests, I shall avoid offending an intelligent person.

37. There is no action so slight, so simple, so inconspicuous but our way of doing it betrays us. A fool does not come in, or go out, or sit down, or rise, or hold his tongue, or stand on his feet as a man of sense does.

38. I know Mopsus from a visit which he paid me, without knowing me; he begs people with whom he is unacquainted to take him to others, who are unacquainted with him; he writes to women whom he knows only by sight, he worms his way into a circle of worthy folk who don't know what he is like, and there, without waiting to be asked and unaware that he is interrupting, he talks continually and ridiculously. Another time he comes into an assembly and sits down wherever he happens to be, heedless of others or of himself; when he is turned out of the seat meant for a Minister of State, he sits down in that of a Duke; he is the person everyone laughs at, while he alone remains grave and unamused. You may drive a dog off the King's armchair, and it will climb into the preacher's pulpit; he views the world unmoved, unembarrassed, unabashed; like the fool, he is incapable of feeling shame.

39. Celsus is only of the middle rank, but some great men put up with him; he is not learned, he has dealings with learned men; he has no great merits, but he knows people who have; he is not clever, but he has a tongue which can serve as interpreter, and feet that can carry him from one place to another. He is a man born to go to and fro, to listen to proposals and convey them, to make his own unasked, to exceed his mission and be repudiated on that account, to bring together people who will quarrel at their first encounter; to succeed in one undertaking and fail in a thousand, to take all the praise for success and let others bear the blame for an unlucky outcome. He knows the common rumours, the chitchat of the town; he does nothing himself, he tells or listens to the doings of others, he is a news-bearer; he even knows family secrets; he probes deeper mysteries; he tells you why so and so has been exiled and somebody else recalled; he is familiar with the background and causes of the quarrel between the two brothers and of the rift between the two Ministers. Didn't he warn the former about the deplorable consequences of their misunderstanding? Didn't he remark of the latter that their alliance could not last? Was he not there when certain words were spoken? Didn't he attempt a sort of negotiation? Would anyone believe him? did they listen to him? You can't tell Celsus anything he doesn't know; for who was more involved than he in all these court intrigues? And if it were not so, if he had not at any rate dreamed or imagined it to be so, would he try to make you believe it? would he wear the important and mysterious air of one who has just been acting as ambassador?

40. Menippus is a bird decked out in borrowed plumage. He does not speak or think himself; he repeats thoughts and speeches, and indeed makes use of others' wit so naturally that he is the first to be taken in, and often fancies he is expressing his feelings or explaining his thoughts, whereas he is only the echo of someone from whom he has just parted. He's a man who will pass muster for a quarter of an hour and who then promptly declines, degenerates, loses what slight gloss he owed to his powers of memory, and is threadbare. He alone fails to see how far he falls short of the lofty and sublime; and, incapable of recognizing the full extent of man's intelligence, he naively believes that he has as much as anyone can have: thus he looks and behaves like one who is perfectly satisfied on that head, and who envies nobody. He frequently talks to himself, quite openly, as any passerby can observe, and he always seems to be making up his mind, or deciding that some argument is unanswerable. If you happen to greet him, you put him in the quandary of deciding whether or not to return your greeting; and while he deliberates, you have passed out of his range. His vanity has made a gentleman of him, has raised him above himself, has turned him into something he never was. You can guess, when you see him, that he is concerned only with his own person; that he is well aware that his dress becomes him, and that his finery is well-matched; that he believes all eyes to be upon him and that men are waiting their turn to gaze at him.

41. The man who, having a palace of his own to live in, with different sets of rooms for summer and winter, comes to sleep at the Louvre in an entresol, does not act so out of modesty; and that other who, to preserve his slender figure, abstains from wine and eats only once a day, is neither sober nor temperate; and as for a third, who, importuned by a needy friend, finally gives him some relief, we do not call him generous, we say that he has bought his peace of mind. The merit of men's actions lies solely in their motives, and only disinterestedness can give them perfection.

42. False greatness is unsociable and remote: conscious of its own frailty, it hides, or at least averts its face, and reveals itself only enough to create an illusion and not be recognized as the meanness that it really is. True greatness is free, kind, familiar and popular; it lets itself be touched and handled, it loses nothing by being seen at close quarters; the better one knows it, the more one admires it. It bends graciously towards its inferiors, and then resumes its natural posture effortlessly; it can be relaxed and careless, casting aside its privileges, though always retaining the power to reassume them and turn them to account; it can be merry and playful, but with dignity; we approach it both freely and with deference. Its character is noble and easy, inspiring respect and trust, so that princes appear to us great, indeed very great, without making us feel that we ourselves are small.

43. His very ambition cures the wise man of ambition; he aims at such great things that he cannot rest content with what are commonly prized, such as position, fortune and favour: these petty privileges offer him nothing good or substantial enough to satisfy his heart, or to deserve his efforts and desires; he must take pains, indeed, not to show too much contempt for them. The only prize capable of tempting him is that sort of glory which ought to spring from virtue pure and simple; but men seldom grant it, and he does without it.

44. That man is good who does good to others; if he suffers on account of the good he does, he is very good; if he suffers at the hands of those to whom he has done good, then his goodness is so great that it could be enhanced only by greater sufferings; and if he should die at their hands, his virtue can go no further: it is heroic, it is perfect.